This story on Buzzfeed was going around Facebook today, and I felt that I needed to expand on the point it makes.
In short, it is about a social experiment that may or may not have actually occurred in a classroom. Kids were asked to sit in their seats and try to toss wadded paper into a bin. The kids in the back of the class objected, stating that it was unfair, but the exercise went ahead. Many of the kids in the front made their shot, though it is clumsily pointed out that not all of them did. It is noted that “only a few students in the back of the room made it.” It succeeds in painting a relatable picture of what privilege is, but it fails to point out somethings that people who have privilege often miss.
I think, as a story, it would make sense to point out that there might be someone in the front of the class with a visual impairment or a physical ailment or disability who still missed, but had a much better chance for being in the front of the class than the back. Others may not have taken the exercise seriously enough to make a solid effort. Privilege does not ensure success, just as some people with less privilege, through hard work and/or luck, might succeed.
It fails to point out that the people in the back probably noticed right away that this was unfair, because it was obvious from where they were. Many of them might not have even been able to see the bin from their seat, having to either count on a description, someone pointing at it, or being allowed to look at it from another angle before returning to their seat to make the attempt. Maybe one of them was brave enough to try standing in their seat. All of these are forms of affirmative action. They give a person without privilege a better chance at success, but they don’t change the factors that limited them in the first place, or not all of them. We can give a person a place in an institution that they could not fully earn, but they would have no role models, no allies, and the resources would not be in place to ensure that they could cope. We can give them some relief, but they still have to work harder.
The story fails to make the point that maybe even those in the middle of the second row who were still closer to the bin than those on the edges of the front row. Because privilege isn’t a straight line. It is a graph with a hundred axes. I score well on several important ones, like being a white, straight man in the United States. You may score less well, because of gender or sexuality, or better because you live in a country with universal healthcare and better market regulations. Your religion may be closer to the cultural assumption of mainline protestantism; Catholics have it better than Hindus through much of the United States. You may be a transgendered person who is lucky enough to rarely have that fact noticed, and therefore can live under the assumption of cisgendered privilege most of the time, or a person of Hispanic decent who looks white enough that people don’t discriminate against you for your race. Privilege is a tricky concept with a lot of variables.
I like the way this experiment sets up the discussion, but I think that it lacks follow-through in helping to go beyond the idea that “some people start closer to the basket”. That is essential in making it a discussion that reaches those people who need to understand it the most: the people in the front row who still see a challenge in getting that ball in the bin and don’t have to think about how much harder it is for the kid behind them because that is happening outside the focus of their objective. And we all need to be reminded, sometimes, that all positions in the front row are not equally advantageous, and it doesn’t illuminate every challenge that a person might face. If a person is struggling, we can acknowledge and hear that without diminishing the understanding that they might still have privileges we do not; it simply reminds us that, occasionally, perspective is also a privilege.
Hello to my few faithful readers. I am honestly sorry that I have not been publishing much here lately, but I have honestly been doing a lot of writing. I am taking 2 on-line classes and I just helped to launch a new website for the I Am UU Project for Unitarian Universalist evangelism and outreach. I’ve been reading, writing, and designing images for the I Am UU Facebook page, which has really taken off in the last 6 months. I’ve got a few other things up in the air, and while I am very excited about them, I am not ready to talk openly about them all just yet.
I was inspired to write this week because Tandi Rogers of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Office of Growth Strategies changed her profile picture, a few days ago now, in celebration of the 30 Days of Love, an annual event from the good folks at the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. Now, we are on day 15, and this was posted by the folks at the SotSoL Facebook page for day 6. It is god to know that I am not the only person who is falling behind on the 30 Days of Love. I did see it before, but I was busy with my own projects, and I didn’t let myself think much about it, I guess, because when I saw it this morning, I knew I had to answer it.
I had to answer it because over the last few years, my faith has transformed me, my life, and the lives of the people around me.
Back in 2008, my life fell apart. I won’t go into the real details, but I was homeless, unemployed, recently divorced after a long separation, and had come to the realization that the friendships of my early 20s were not supporting me in my early 30s. I moved away from those friends and my now exwife and our children, not so very far, but 40 miles is a long way to go when you don’t have a car. I moved in with my ailing mother to take over for my younger sister, who was not managing Mom’s finances and affairs well. I showed up at their door with more food than they had in the house at the time.
I knew I needed a lot of change. I needed a new social life. I needed some direction. I needed change. I had been involved with a Unitarian Universalist church back in college, and while I had stopped attending, I still remembered the joy I had felt in learning about their Principles and mission. I reached out to the UU church in town, and everything changed.
I was contacted quickly by a member who was part of the web-team. While I never did get onto the web-team, her friendship was vital to getting my life back and getting involved with the rest of the church.
I volunteered for everything that I could get a ride to. I let my participation in church make up for the lack of direction in the rest of my life. I knew I was helping make good things happen in my community, both the congregation, and the greater community that we serve. People were being fed, houses built, and we marched for equality. I wasn’t feeding, and I wasn’t building, but I was supporting the organization that made sure those things got done. It started me on my way out of a funk I had fallen into.
After about 2 years of being active, I decided that I was going to take my skills in technology and communications that I couldn’t find a market for, and I used them to reach out to other Unitarian Universalists. I started a Twitter account devoted to sharing positive stories of Unitarian Universalists and the work they were doing to promote our Principles in the world. I connected to other UUs on social media, and they helped me expand my understanding of what the Principles really mean in practice. My understanding of my own privilege became more clear, and I was able to be a better ally for those who had different needs because of their culture, language, their physical limitations, and even their gender (or lack there of).
I also came to terms with many of the negative associations I had for the religion of my childhood. I now feel that I have an even better understanding of the wisdom of the Bible, and the teachings of Jesus and his followers. Understanding that the Bible wasn’t a single book, and that it was ok that there were parts written by different people who didn’t have the same message or story to tell. Each story could share something important on its own; they didn’t have to agree.
I learned to give simply because I had something to give. I didn’t have money, so I gave time. People appreciated that, and it made it easier to give. I realized that even when most people didn’t notice that I had done a thing, they appreciated that it had been done, and I could be proud of making things seem so smooth for everyone else.
My faith has transformed me to be a better person. I firmly believe that. It has made me more accepting. It has made me more patient. It has helped me learn to let go of my frustrations, and to see that all of us humans are just trying to get by, trying to cope with our own desire to be vital in a universe where we are so small. I make my vitality by trying to live up to my faith.
At the turn of the 19th century, Universalism had a vibrant and passionate voice in Hosea Ballou. Having converted to Universalism in 1789, he also came to reject the concept of the Holy Trinity, making him a Unitarian Universalist long before the consolidation of the UUA. He wrote many sermons designed to empower Universalists to talk about the unconditional love of God. He also established Universalist publications, and was known to welcome public questions of his beliefs.
One of the constant questions he faced was along the lines of “How can you believe God saves everyone, no matter how much they have sinned. Ballou confronted the idea of damnation, saying that love required salvation at all costs. He asked, given the Christian assumption of a fatherly creator:
“Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”
He did not make these declarations to shame people. He was not trying to lure them to his pews for prestige or tithes. He wanted people to feel loved. His desire was to save people; not from damnation at the hand of God, but from the condemnation of the society they lived in. He argued against Calvinism and the idea that bad things happen only to bad people, and good things only to good. He had more than faith, and more than a message. This was a man with a mission.
This is what Unitarian Universalism needs; not more “social action” or “welcoming” language. We need a mission to actually change the world, with our faith in humanity and the power of love and knowledge, as the core of that mission. We don’t need more people to join us because of how we do politics; we need people to feel compelled to activism by our message that people deserve to be treated with respect and empowered to live lives that make them happy.
To reframe the question posed by Rev. Ballou: Do we embrace our faith because it promotes things we want to do, or are we doing things to help the world because we have a loving and humanist faith? Do we love the world because we are making it better, or are we making it better because we first loved it?
There are people in the world who are lonely, who have been hurt, and who are angry. They don’t want to talk about religion, and they definitely don’t want to hear about divinity and love. They are the people who need us the most. We can reach them, because our divine love doesn’t come after you are dead. Our religion doesn’t even require that you believe in gods, much less worship them. We can offer them a community and a home for their spirit to heal, so that they can find the path that makes them happy and healthy again. We have that, and we shouldn’t be at all afraid to tell people about it. They may say no, but that isn’t a reflection on us, and it isn’t an insult. The insult is presuming that they don’t want the invitation or might not deserve one.
There are people in the world who have been oppressed. Our movement is overwhelmingly made up of people who are white, educated, and middle-class. As a group, we have a lot of privilege. As a religion of love and justice, we owe it to the world to use our individual privilege to work for equality and justice. In effect, our mission should be to leverage our political, economic, and intellectual power to reduce our own impact, much as Jesus said to his followers to give all their goods to the poor in order to follow him. If the poor are elevated, then poverty is eliminated; if cultural privilege is shared, then oppression can be eliminated. Both are essential to achieving social justice and giving everyone an opportunity to contribute their best back to society.
We need to love the world enough to want to change it. Too many Unitarian Universalists seem to come from the other end; operating from a place of dissatisfaction or even disgust and a desire to change things so they are tolerable. We need to care about more than what we can personally stand to allow. We need to make sure the mission is about making things as positive as we can for as many people as we can help. We need to make sure that we are building an all-inclusive community, that makes room for everyone who truly desires to join in our spiritual and social work.
I’ve previously argued that our creator must love us all, and must either have one final destination planned for all of us, or be a being unworthy of my personal reverence. Now I am making the point that our churches must do the same. We have to actively embody that belief, encoded in our Principles, that all people have an inherent worth and dignity that needs to be nourished, and deserve the chance to build a life that makes them happy so long as it doesn’t harm others. It needs to be rooted in our shared belief and a desire to build a better world. We also have to tell people about that mission, because there are people who want to help us, and we need them. There are others who just need the hope that they might have a place in the community; that we are working to have their dignity recognized and respected.
That is missional Unitarian Universalism, to me, and it leads me to be evangelical about our faith. Even those who have no desire, even those who truly have no need, for a religious community do need to know that we are different, and that religion can be a force that helps unite society and undo the idea that God has picked winners and losers and that the oppressed don’t deserve better from their society.
Unitarian Universalism is about relationships. At their core, all religions are. They tell us how to react to the universe, to the divine, and (possibly most importantly) to each other. Many outline proper relationships to animals or to plants, both how to raise them and how, when or if we should eat them. Unitarian Universalism isn’t so much different in scope, though we don’t the same level of detail about any of it that some other religions provide. We have ideals, and it is up to each person to live up to them the best they can in their own way. We focus almost exclusively on positive outcomes.
We don’t feel that almost every person is born with some sense of community. We have an inherent sense of self worth and dignity, and we are driven by a need to have that recognized by others. We feel that when we honor that worth and dignity, we give a person the freedom to be who they really are, and we encourage them through positive relationships and encouragement.We try to lead them to understanding, though no one can hand spiritual growth over to another; it must be sought and earned individually.
In much the same way, no one can tell you what your relationships ought to mean to you, or how to create or maintain them. You have to choose the people who support you. You have to build the life that makes you happy. You are responsible for your love, your fear, your anger, and your sense of responsibility. There is no better judge of who and what is important to you, and you have to form personal relationships with each person in your life, and no one else can dictate who they are with, what they are, or how they make you feel.
Your relationship with each person is different than the relationship that person has with anyone else. You parents don’t have the same relationship with you that they have with anyone else. Neither does your significant other or your boss. You are such an essential part of each of your relationships that you make them each personal for the other person, or you choose not to.
The same principle holds true for your relationship with the congregation as a whole, or the grater community. You have the right to share your time and talents in a way that is fulfilling to you. You also have the right to withhold your contributions if you don’t feel that they are appreciated or if you just would rather not do the same thing for the church that you do for a paycheck. It is up to the congregation and the community to value you. They have a responsibility to communicate their needs and to give you positive feedback and respect. You have the responsibility to stand up for yourself when they ask too much. No one else can know your limits as well as you, and you can reasonably expect to have them honored if they are clearly communicated. That give and take is what makes a good community work in the long run.
Your relationship with the divine is also personal, and no one can feel the pull on your heart and mind. You know what name feels right on your tongue and what rituals calm or excite you. We can help you explore the possibilities, but you have to know God on your own terms. Just as your relationship with each member of your family and community reflects your contribution to that relationship, the divine relationship is tailored to your gifts and your perspective. No one can tell you how to feel about the rest of creation or our mutual source.
The Unitarian Universalist congregation has pledged to encourage your spiritual growth, and to aid you in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning in your life and in the world. We want to be good for you. You deserve to have your worth and dignity acknowledged and nurtured. We are a better community when you are a healthy part of our community, and that can only happen if there is honest communication about your needs as well as what is needed of you.
There are oh, so many, who say that the 7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism are only a covenant between congregations, and need not mean anything to individuals. I strongly disagree; we need to understand that some of them are clearly promises congregations make to members, and thus that members make to each other. A congregation is, after all, only a group of people who share a covenant with one another. If we do not believe that those Principles have value in our lives, to help us create healthy and enriching relationships, then what purpose do they serve? If they are simply a promise from one non-profit corporation to other corporations, then doesn’t that reduce our churches to mere office buildings?
Unitarian Universalism is a religion, or it is nothing at all. If it is a religion, then it must advise us in our relationships. It must direct us to create relationships that improve our communities. It must inspire us to reach out to one another, in times of trouble and triumph, and support one another in our quest for truth and meaning through encouragement to spiritual growth. Our heaven is a community, here on Earth, where there is justice, equity, compassion, and peace; a beloved community that includes every person and values every living thing.
Filed under: Spirituality, Unitarian | Tagged: community, congregations, covenant, humanism, mystical belief, Principles, relationships, religion, spiritual growth, Strange Religion, theology, unitarian universalism, UU | Leave a comment »
When was the last time you said to someone, “I had lunch at the best Italian place today”? Have you ever said to someone, “There is a farmers market every Thursday over off the highway, if you want better, local produce”? I can’t be the only person who has tried to convince people to visit at a small, locally owned business instead of a box store or chain restaurant. Have you ever let someone know that there is a local charity that needs the kind of items they might have otherwise set out on the curb? Have you ever talked to someone about an issue that they seemed misinformed about?
Evangelism isn’t foreign to many UUs. We just don’t apply it to our religion, which is a shame, because we are often driven to tell people about things that are exciting to us because they promote our Principles.
Part of the difference is that we have let Evangelism be owned by fundamentalists. People tell me that the definition of the word is to talk to people about Jesus and the Gospels of the Bible, and that it has no relation to Unitarian Universalism. Do we really believe that we have no place for Jesus in our religion? That would be a painful thing to hear for our great theological fore bearers, of whom we are so proud. When did we stop teaching “love your neighbor”? What would Unitarian Universalism be without non violent protests, where we “Turn the other cheek”? Our Biblical message is part of our larger religious message; is it not as worthy of being shared as any other?
Some people have said that it goes against something fundamental in our Principles or beliefs to be excited and talk to people about why being a Unitarian Universalist matters in our lives. I would like to counter that, by saying that, just as we pray differently, worship differently, and fellowship differently from most Christian churches, we can evangelize in a way that still honors our Principles. Just as we haven’t, as a movement, given up those other words (nor should we), we shouldn’t give up the idea that we have a great message to share through personal evangelism.
We affirm and promote the idea that we honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Doesn’t that mean that we should be telling people that our church accepts who they are? Shouldn’t we make sure that they know where to find a community that will make room for them, as they are, and let them grow into the person they were born to be? Valuing their worth and dignity means wanting them to know that we offer something different in a church. It means telling them that, if they need it, it is there for them. Inviting people, warmly and sincerely, to join us honors their worth. Letting them choose for themselves honors their dignity. Shouldn’t we make sure they are aware of Unitarian Universalism as an option?
Unitarian Universalist congregations also covenant to “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”. How can we grow if we are never challenged? How can we grow if we allow our churches to stagnate and age without seeking out new members? Our mission requires fresh ideas and new talents every year, to tackle fresh obstacles and meet changing needs. Our growth requires that we hear other perspectives and that we consider new information. Our mission requires that we engage people in conversation, and that we seek out people who hold different ideas than those already represented in our congregations.
The most likely sticking point, I think may be in our commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. As I said last week, “I believe that we can’t convert people to Unitarian Universalism; you have to come to it already knowing that it is right for you.” I also believe, though, that we can plant the seeds by talking about our Principles, and I am proof that those ideas will stick with some people, and they can come to accept them, even if it wasn’t their first reaction. I have never advocated for beating people with copies of “On the Origin of Species” or “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith“. It wouldn’t do any good. Instead, let us lead good lives, do good in our communities, and make sure people know that we are expressing our faith and living out our Principles. We can tell people about how our congregations are families that accept and embrace our uniqueness. It isn’t about conversion or convincing people of anything other than that our church helps us be better people, and that we have a place in it for them, too.
It isn’t against our Principles to talk to people, to educate them and try to influence their decisions. Our Principles actually call on us to try to change our communities for the better. It cannot run contrary to those saving, loving, accepting ideas to share them with others, to widen and strengthen our beloved community. We cannot proselytize in the manner of fundamentalist. Ours is not a faith that comes with answers, and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. We can talk people through that, if they are willing to listen, but only if we are wiling to share. There are people you encounter every week who need to know that they can be loved for who they are. We need to extend an invitation to join in our work, because our beloved community is incomplete without them.
Evangelism isn’t in opposition to Unitarian Universalist Principles. It is required by them. As with so many other religious terms, we just need to come to our own understanding of what it means to evangelize. We can do it in a way that respects the personal quest for truth, while still proclaiming the worth and value of each person we encounter. If we have something great to share, how can we claim to better the world while keeping it to ourselves?
Filed under: Unitarian | Tagged: activism, belief, definitions, Evangelism, Principles, relationships, religion, spiritual growth, Strange Religion, unitarian universalism, universalism, UU | Leave a comment »
It wasn’t until about 1998 that I discovered Unitarian Universalism. This despite being 20 years old and living in a part of the country where UU churches are pretty dense for the US south. There was a UU congregation in my home town when I left, but I knew nothing about them. The building was clearly decades old, but the idea of it was completely new to me.
I was invited by a friend who had started attending shortly before, though he had been to a UU church before (he was a bit older and a lot better traveled, as a veteran of the US Navy.) I was unsure I could be excited about church, and fairly unwilling to accept the idea of regular attendance, much less membership. I left the church of my youth and was on a very personal and very eclectic Pagan path. I didn’t want to turn on to some well-trod road just to be part of a community, though he assured me that I wouldn’t need to.
So I discovered the local fellowship in my college town at about age 20, and I was unimpressed.
Honestly, I loved the young adult group, some of whom are still long-distance much much respected friends. I liked the pluralism and I really respected the part-time minister. Some of the lay-led services where really interesting, too. Part of me couldn’t really get excited, though, about getting up early on a Sunday to sing hymns to nothing in particular.
It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with the Principles. It was only very slightly that I was struggling with the sources. One big problem was that the congregation was very humanist, and I was very spiritual (a problem I have previously discussed). The bigger issue, as I see it now, was that I wasn’t ready to really embrace the 4th Principle. I was still mad at Christianity, and I was ticked that the Humanists didn’t make more room for my form of patchwork paganism.
In my last post, I pointed out that there are a lot of people who come to Unitarian Universalist churches thinking, “This is what I have been looking for for so long!” I was another case, which I touched on in the second half of that post: I hadn’t embraced diversity and reason far enough to be comfortable in Unitarian Universalism. I found this amazing faith before I was ready for it, and I almost didn’t come back.
Ours can be a mature kind of faith. To accept it, you might need to understand that the world is complex, and people are different in many ways, and yet there are rules and people, ultimately, have the same needs physically and emotionally. You absolutely need to see that we can’t all follow the same path, or we would all be doing the same work. It requires some understanding that I, for one, didn’t have at the age of 20. A lot changed over the next 8 years, but Unitarian Universalism didn’t, and it was still there, waiting, when I was ready.
I had to learn that “pagan” was a lousy denominator for any thought other than “I’d like to shock the Christians a little”. Learning to accept the variety that comes with the “Pagan” community, be they Wiccan, Asatru, or Hellenistic, helped me understand how humanity needs people who feel called to different kinds of service to the divine and to humanity. I came to understand pluralism better, and it helped heal the scratches (I can’t call them wounds) that my Christian upbringing had left on my heart.
I came back to Unitarian Universalism, to that same building, to find that there had been changes on both sides. Both the congregation and I had grown more inclusive and welcoming. It was honestly joyous; I had found a community where I could hope to be my whole self. I ended up not joining that church, but finding myself in another due to obligations and situations. The church I joined was the one in my home town, that I had not, would not have, known existed until I went looking for it. It was more like the building and the services I grew up in, and that was both comforting and inspiring, as they had room for bigger programs and projects.
I found a place that I could call a spiritual home, with a loving and supportive family that wanted to help me grow and encourage me to participate and give of my talents. They demanded nothing, and they have been, for the most part, very gracious with what I have wanted to share.
The fact is, though, that I found Unitarian Universalism, and unlike so many others who eventually become members, I wasn’t already a UU. I had to grow into it. I had to overcome things about myself and my world view. I needed to mature and be ready to accept the Principles. I’ll talk more about this in a future post, but this is why I believe that we can’t convert people to Unitarian Universalism; you have to come to it already knowing that it is right for you. I still think it matters that we get the ideas and the Principles out into the world, so that people can contemplate them and they can make a choice. Whether they ever join us in covenant, we need to be letting them know that the invitation is open. We need to have these conversations, because so many of the people who will benefit at some point won’t even know at the time that they want to know.
There are a lot of people who are, like I was, looking for something meaningful, but have no idea what it looks like. If they don’t know how we are different, then why would they ask us about our church? If they don’t know that our Principles are very different from the creeds of other churches, then they won’t know to ask. We can make excuses for not reaching out to people, and we can certainly point out that our outreach might make some uncomfortable. It also might plant the seed that brings them home one day. I was saved by an invitation that was not well received. I had no intention of joining, even after several months of participation. If I hadn’t been invited, if someone hadn’t risked my rejection and ridicule, I would still be lost, and I would be so much worse off for it.
When I say that we need to speak up, invite people in, and strike up conversations with anyone who gives us an opening, I say it from experience. We cannot convert anyone; our Principles don’t lend themselves to it even if it were a goal. We can make sure that people see us, and know that we can be there for them, their community, and their family. We can give them the information and let them turn it over in their heads. I speak to strangers at bus stops, people in online discussions, and just last week the cheerful young woman who works in the bakery at my supermarket. Few people have ever been offended because I brought up religion, and most actually ask questions, because what we have is interesting and different.
They may not come the next Sunday, or in a the next year, but I feel better telling them that we are out in the world, spreading love and preaching acceptance. Many of them seem grateful to hear about a religion that doesn’t condemn them before we’ve even been introduced. A number of people have even thanked me for telling them that we love them for who they are, and that they are welcome with their whole selves and their whole family, even if they had no intention of taking me up on the invite. I honestly believe that just telling people who we are and what kind of work we do makes the world a better, more tolerable place for some. I also believe that no matter how few find their way to our doors, it is worth letting them know where to find us.